SCCC technical specialist offers tips on keeping germ-free kitchen

SCCC Technical Specialist David Wixted is bullish on safe refrigerators and foods and a proponent fo
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If a germ has survived in David Wixted’s home kitchen, it is hiding. And it is scared.

That’s because Wixted eventually is going to corner the microscopic intruder and wash it into oblivion with soap and hot water. He is bullish on safe refrigerators and foods, a proponent for clean counters, sinks and cabinets. As a technical specialist in the culinary arts school at Schenectady County Community College, Wixted teaches aspiring chefs both cooking and sanitation techniques.

This year, Wixted also is helping restaurants across the state keep cutting boards and food slicers free of bacteria and mold. As project coordinator of the New York State Hospitality Grant, he is scheduling one-day seminars for food service personnel to satisfy a new state law. Last summer, legislators passed a bill requiring restaurants and other establishments that prepare and serve food to have at least one staffer instructed in safe and proper handling of food, as well as safe preparation, cooking, storage, serving and delivery of food.

People who bake and broil at home don’t have to worry about the class. But they can learn a few things about clean living in their kitchens. It all starts with diligence.

“You’re trying to change behavior, and that’s one of the toughest things to change with people,” said Wixted, who also is in charge of kitchen and food sanitation at Saratoga Race Course. “It’s ‘Gee, my grandmother did this, my mother did this, we’ve been doing this for years and we never got sick.’ It’s probably true, but you’re taking that chance.”

Some methods are easy. People without dishwashers who use the old sink-and-strainer routine can save some time by letting plates and bowls dry in the strainer. Keeping towels off steel and ceramics means less chance of germs going from linen to Lenox.

Another way to eliminate kitchen germs is eliminating kitchen sponges. The bright, absorbent rectangles may be great helpers for scrubbing pots and dishes, but they are also vacation resorts for assorted bacteria. Wixted has a simple solution, and it is law inside his Colonie home.

“I don’t use sponges,” he said. “It’s a personal thing. I’d rather use a fresh dish towel every day, air dry it, and then at the end of the night, put it with my dirty towels in the pantry. Then when I do my towels, I wash them all.”

Wixted also puts paper towels and moistened disinfectant wipes to work. He’ll use the wipes for counter surfaces, refrigerator exterior and cabinet handles. Handles are especially important. Dirty hands can open cabinets and leave germs behind. The next person who opens the cabinet may be sick the next day.

DEFROST IN REFRIGERATOR

Wixted also does not give bacteria a chance when it comes to defrosting meats. People should never defrost meats, poultry or fish outside the refrigerator. Room temperature, Wixted said, provides ideal conditions for bacteria to grow and multiply.

“The best defrosting method is in the refrigerator,” he said. “If I’m going to make it on a Friday, I take it out on a Wednesday. I’d give it a couple days to defrost in the refrigerator.”

Microwave ovens can be used to defrost foods, but Wixted said chefs must be prepared to begin their dishes right away; the microwave process also will begin cooking the meats.

TOSS THAT OLD HAMBURGER

Old foods mean old foods. A pound of hamburger purchased Saturday and forgotten about until the following Thursday should be consigned to the garbage.

“Whatever that ‘use by’ or ‘sell by’ date is on those packages, follow that if you’re not going to freeze it,” Wixted said. “Hamburger, you don’t get a lot of shelf life, three days, maybe. If it’s five to eight days after that, throw it out. It’s going to start to smell, actually. Use your nose — it’s another great tool that we have. If it doesn’t smell good, chances are it’s not.”

Wixted is also careful about cross-contamination, the movement or transfer of harmful bacteria from one person, object or place to another. People risk such contamination if they mix raw meats, vegetables and cooked foods. People should never cut celery or carrots, he said, on the same cutting board they’ve been using for raw chicken or other uncooked meats or fish.

Wixted suggests separate cutting boards —and separate knives — for raw meats, produce and cooked foods. He wishes a solution for refrigerators was as easy; there’s always a chance defrosting meats can leak from spots on refrigerator shelves. If they do, they can trickle down into produce bins that are always near the bottom of the machines. “I think they should be up on the top,” Wixted said.

SAFETY TIPS

Other suggestions for safe kitchens include:

— Never place hot, freshly cooked foods such as chili con carne or soup directly in the refrigerator. “You put that chili into the refrigerator, what you’re doing is releasing all that heat into the refrigerator and you’re putting all that other food through a temperature danger zone. You’re working your refrigerator harder, you’re spending more money in energy to do that.”

Wixted suggested an ice bath in the kitchen sink to reduce the temperature. The pot of food goes into the sink, a bag of ice cubes is emptied around the pot. Stirring the food on a regular basis for an hour will significantly reduce the food temperature.

— When freezing meats, take them out of their original packaging and use stronger plastic freezer bags. And label the package with a date.

— Place dates on all canned and bottled merchandise. Cans stored on pantry shelves for years may have failed; tiny holes and rust will contaminate the product. Cans stored longer than two or three years should be discarded.

— When preparing dinners, wash hands several times during the process.

— Always defrost shrimp in cold water, not hot. Shrimp will defrost quickly, even with the cold temperature.

— After kitchen garbage containers have been emptied, wash them with hot water and cleansers.

— Always wash produce before use, even products that have been advertised as prewashed.

— To keep cookies fresh, wrap them before putting them in a cookie jar.

— On garbage nights, make cleaning out the refrigerator a weekly ritual.

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